By Megan Westberg
It would appear that violinist Hilary Hahn can’t quite get enough Bach. After the announcement that, on Friday, October 5, she’ll be releasing the rest of her set of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas (the first half of the set released 21 years ago, when she was 17), she promptly opened the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra‘s season with the Bach Double Concerto in D minor and the Bach Violin Concerto in E major.
The concert was held in Glendale’s splendid Alex Theatre, with its deco marquee announcing quite clearly that on the evening of September 29, Hilary Hahn Plays Bach. And so she did.
Strings managing editor Stephanie Powell and I were running slightly late (deep sigh, #parkingwoes), and so got to witness what other concertgoers on the edge of respectable punctuality would do to make it to a Hilary Hahn concert on time. Behaviors varied from exasperated crowd weaving to a more casual quickstep to a flat-out run (this was impressive to watch). By a kind of miracle, we made it with a couple of minutes to spare and joined the excited crowd as it meandered through the venue’s courtyard into the auditorium, a former movie palace built in 1925.
The Alex was designed as an “atmospherium” meant to give the audience the sense of being enclosed in a walled garden. With the golden sunburst ascending into a sky-blue ceiling, and painted trees adorning the surrounding walls, it is certainly a venue with atmosphere and a sense of old-school glamour befitting the area. Had Hedy Lamarr sauntered down the aisle and taken a seat, it would have seemed entirely appropriate.
If the house lights went down, it was very subtly, as the auditorium remained well illuminated as members of the orchestra arrived onstage. LA Chamber Orchestra composer-in-residence and Grawemeyer Award–winner Andrew Norman then appeared to introduce his piece, Try. His music is described on his website as “distinctive, often fragmented, and highly energetic” with an increasing interest in storytelling. Try, he explained, casts the orchestra as a “ragtag comedy troupe trying 1,001 ways to get it together.”
Guest conductor Gemma New took to the podium, evidently charged with roping this chaotic collection of sound effects into a cohesive piece. There was an overall sense of disorder, of committing noisy fragments of mistakes over and over, only to dive back into the fray and try it again, a slightly different way. Of all of the collected instruments onstage, only a sole piano, played by Mark Robson, escaped the din and “gets it together” by the end, playing a vaguely haunting repeated phrase—the only respite in a piece filled with dissonance and raw edges.
The bridge from this piece to the Bach Double was a bit of a head scratcher, but once LA Chamber Orchestra concertmaster Margaret Batjer and Hilary Hahn took to the stage to play, the audience seemed to settle back in their chairs, more sure of the artistic ground they were about to tread.
The music, of course, is almost universally beloved and so the task is to make this familiar piece somehow new—combining the comfort of an old friend with the thrill of a fresh intrigue. This isn’t easy, but with Hahn and Batjer, two truly formidable players, the challenge was met. If it took a moment for all of the moving parts to gel entirely in the first movement, the soloists and ensemble more than made up for it with a lovely second movement, with its tender, aching melody both soaring and sweet. The third movement seemed to develop a new energy of its own, the players obviously digging in with relish, culminating in a performance that felt lively, joyous, and special.
Throughout, it was impossible to ignore Hahn’s obvious pleasure in both collaborating and in doing the job she does. She moves with grace and buoyancy, swaying with a fiddler’s ease to strengthen her connections onstage with New and the players around her. She smiles, and will occasionally arch an eyebrow in anticipation or enjoyment of a musical moment. Her flourishes feel spontaneous and fresh. She may be playing profound music, but she’s also having a good time doing it.
After a brief pause, Hahn took to the stage again to play the Bach Concerto in E major. An elegant opening Allegro movement gave way to sensitive, emotive playing in the middle Adagio. As in the Bach Double, Hahn had reserved some fireworks for the third movement, Allegro assai, and closed her performance with a sense of vibrant energy punctuated by virtuoso ornaments. A standing ovation yielded an encore, the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 3, BWV 1006.
The happy crowd rushed out of the theater to join a long line of Hahn fans in the courtyard, waiting for the chance to meet the violinist and get her signature on her yet-to-be-released Bach album, for sale onsite. Long before the back of the line reached the front, the signal came to retake our seats for the rest of the performance.
Gemma New introduced the next piece, Franco Donatoni’s Eco, a US premiere. Donatoni was an avant-garde Italian composer, who wrote this piece in 1985–86. Though the orchestra played this challenging work with conviction, its inclusion in the program seemed a bit out of place, preceded as it was by mostly Bach and followed by the Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony No. 4. New conducted with springy precision until the piece came to an abrupt close.
As the first strains of the Mendelssohn floated into the atmospherium, bodies began to sway and a few members of the audience hummed along. It was a satisfying aural trip to Italy, and afterward, the audience filtered back out out to the courtyard, where a celebratory season-opening reception was being held, with members of the orchestra and the inaugural class of the LA Orchestra Fellowship mingling with concertgoers. Clusters of people made their way to a drink, or strolled slowly under the marquee out into the cool, dark night.